Issue of the Week

The New Council's First Steps

by Mark Berkey-Gerard and Lenore Chester

14 January 02

When the new New York City Council met for the first time on January 9, the room buzzed like the first day of school.

Proud parents, some of whom were former council members themselves, waved and snapped photographs. The members greeted each other with hugs and hearty handshakes. And for a few minutes, everyone struggled to find their nametags and chairs and wondered out loud if the seating arrangement would be permanent.

"Hey that's my old seat!" Harlem Councilmember Bill Perkins yelled to a colleague.

But this day was more than just an occasion for political pageantry. The new members have promised that it would mark a new era for the New York City Council. The members, 38 out of 51 who took office for the first time, say they will be more ambitious, more outspoken, and more productive than their predecessors.

And while the carefully choreographed meeting was meant to demonstrate the youthful energy of the new council -- 23-year-old Bronx Councilmember Joel Rivera stood to nominate 32-year-old Gifford Miller for the position of Speaker -- it was also meant to reassure the city that term limits had not destroyed government.

"The smooth democratic transition that we are witnessing today has proved the critics wrong and sends a strong message that the council as an institution is stronger and more unified than ever," Gifford Miller said in his opening address.

Speaker Miller, who now holds the "second-most powerful position in the city," outlined a set of goals that any New Yorker could agree with. He said he would work to close the city's budget gaps, rebuild lower Manhattan, and improve schools, housing, and public safety.

Just how he will go about these things at a time when the economy and the city's are dismal, he did not say.

With the largest budget deficit since the 1970's, a struggling school system, and a lack of affordable housing, the new council faces serious challenges in living up to their promises. They may also find the duties of their first couple of months consumed with tasks that are not particularly popular with voters, complicated, and tedious.

So what real issues will the city council tackle in the coming months? Can they do anything about things like education and affordable housing? Will Speaker Miller provide the necessary leadership? And how different will the new City Council be from the old?

THE FIRST CHALLENGES

The first priority the council faces is to balance a municipal budget that is expected to have a ten percent deficit for fiscal year 2002 -- four billion dollars.

For much of the past eight years, the mayor and city council have engaged in a "cut-and-restore" pattern of budgeting: the mayor introduces a series of cuts and then the city council struggles to put as much as they can back in.

This year, with Mayor Bloomberg asking all city agencies to make up to 20 percent cuts, the budget process will be much more painful.

Some members, such as Park Slope representative Bill DeBlasio, are already saying that the council should immediately reject the mayor's proposed cuts to uniformed services, education, and that it should accept no city employee layoffs.

Few politicians are eager to raise taxes right after they take office, so the council may have to look for complex ways to close the budget gap including refinancing some of the city's debt, selling the city's Off-Track Betting Corporation, instituting more hiring freezes, and postponing capital projects - none of which will be easy.

In addition to the budget, the new council will also have to find money in the budget for new contracts for police, firefighters, and teachers. And as federal welfare ends, the city will have to help with those who need jobs or assistance.

When cuts are made to programs across the city, the council members will be the ones who hear about it from constituents.

"My local community based organizations and the Brooklyn Library are already calling me saying they can't function with a 10 percent cut or any cut," said Brooklyn Councilmember Tracy Boyland.

One particularly complicated and expensive issue the council may face is the city's garbage disposal plan. When Fresh Kills landfill was closed last year, the new plan was largely dependent on processing plants in Linden, New Jersey that have not yet been built. In the meantime, the annual disposal costs are rising to over $300 million a year.

"It would almost be cheaper for every New Yorker to gift wrap their trash and send it UPS than the current plan," said Barbara Fife of the Baruch School of Public Affairs.

Budget cuts, refinancing debt, garbage -- these are not the kinds of issues most of these council members talked about on the campaign trail.

WHAT THEY CAN DO LEGALLY

For all of the good intentions, energy, and youth of the new council, there are many issues that are largely out of their control. The mayor has more power over policy. The state controls much of the funding and has legislative authority over an extraordinary range of activities within the city.

But the council has more potential power now than it did in the past.

The 1989 charter revision aimed to make the city council a more equal partner with the mayor and granted the council power over budget and land use. And if the City Council Speaker is indeed the second most powerful position in government, then much of that is owed to Peter Vallone, who became the first Speaker and quickly grasped its potential.

For almost a century, power over budget and land use resided in the Board of Estimate, which was comprised of the mayor, the borough presidents, the comptroller and the president of the city council. The United States Supreme Court ruled the system unconstitutional, and the Board of Estimate was eliminated in 1990. The president of the City Council was renamed the public advocate, and the borough presidents lost much of their power. They now appoint members of community boards, the Board of Education, and the City Planning Commission, and have a bully pulpit on behalf of their borough. (Read Borough President Marty Markowitz on meeting the needs of Brooklyn).

The result is that, legally at least, the new City Council now has the power, if it takes it, to improve life tangibly for regular New Yorkers.

HOUSING, EDUCATION, CONSTITUENT SERVICES

In November, when voters were asked in exit polls what issues they thought were most crucial, they did not name terrorism, rebuilding the World Trade Center, or even the economy as their top priority. Voters reiterated what they had said before September 11, that education and housing were their primary concerns.

In education, the City Council can resist budget cuts; it can force more money into the classroom and away from the bureaucratic system; and it plays a key role in deciding where new schools are built.

The council's oversight power enables it to monitor city agencies and investigate why, for example, the Board of Education failed to use $32 million in state funds intended for pre-kindergarten programs last year, and how things can be improved.

The new council also hopes it can pressure Albany into giving the city more money for education, since a New York State Supreme Court ruled that the state's system for funding schools violates the constitution. The main plaintiff in the lawsuit against the state, Robert Jackson, is now in the city council.

"The state needs to pay its fair share," said Speaker Miller. "And if they don't, I'm going to sic Robert Jackson on them again."

On the issue of housing, advocates say that the new council is essential in maintaining the existing 10-year capital plan that extends until 2011 to revitalize existing housing, and build new apartments, even during the economic downturn. With the number of families staying in homeless shelters at a record high, the council's commitment to housing is seen as critical.

"Housing is an issue that can not just be turned off like a spigot," said Joe Weisbord of Housing First. "It requires a sustained commitment."

And a primary responsibility for individual council members is to make sure that their district gets the services it needs. It is often the little things that are irritants to New Yorkers and it will be the new council members that constituents will turn to for help.

"The fact that it takes a mother with four children in my district 40 minutes to get her children to school because of traffic is unacceptable," said Borough Park Councilmember Simcha Felder. "It may not be sexy, but that's what is important to me. That's why I'm here."

WHO IS GIFFORD MILLER?

In the New York City Council, it is difficult to judge members by their past records, since nearly every vote is unanimous, individual members can not bring a bill up to a vote, and committee assignments come from the Speaker.

And although the council members, union officials, and political leaders all said Miller is the "man for the job," few can predict what kind of leader he will be.

Gifford Miller entered the council at the age of 26 with just a political science major and three years experience working for Congresswoman Carol Maloney, but he quickly established himself as an ambitious and loyal member to former Speaker Peter Vallone. Thanks to term limits, with six years experience, he is the senior member of the council.

Some of Millers accomplishments include securing funding for an East Side high school, working to make livery and taxi cab more accessible to the disabled, and drafting the Pro-Voter Act of 2000, that required city agencies to include voter registration cards in their mailings and in their offices.

"Gifford is a very serious young man," former member Ken Fisher told the New York Times. "He has been working on this since it became apparent that term limits were not going away. And it worked for out for him. He has been catapulted out of Upper East Side politics to become a city-wide player."

But Miller's greatest challenge may be empowering the new members, while still providing the strength and leadership to keep them focused.

"I don't want to be the kind of person who says 'here's what I'm interested in,'" Miller said at a press conference. "I want to say 'here's what we're interested in' and give my colleagues the opportunity to press forward on agendas as well."

In order to get elected as Speaker, Miller was able to build coalitions with people from diverse parts of the city. He also managed to negotiate with a caucus of 21 incoming members called the Fresh Democracy Council who pushed for reform of the rules. His ability to continue such coalition building will be crucial, but his predecessor thinks he is up for the job.

"He knows exactly what it takes to build a consensus," said former Speaker Peter Vallone.

A NEW MAYOR VS. A NEW SPEAKER

During the first meeting of the new council, East New York Councilmember Charles Barron, a former leader of the Black Panther Party, stood up to explain why he was supporting Miller and raised a comparison that many have noted, but few have voiced.

"Everybody told me not to say this," said Barron. "But we got a white guy from Manhattan for Mayor, and now we got a white guy from Manhattan for Speaker." Barron then qualified his remarks with a good natured joke in which he presented Miller with wall hooks and a hammer to hang some pictures of "brothers and sisters" on the walls of the council chambers.

What Bloomberg and Miller will have in common besides the same zip code on the Upper East Side, or how they will work together, will be revealed in the future, but they already appear to agree on a number of issues.

Both have said they would like to overhaul the education system. "The first thing we have to acknowledge is that we have to get rid of the Board of Education," Miller said at a forum in December. "I want to see a department of education that is responsible to the mayor and to the council and give us the actual opportunity to follow through on all the promises that we'd like to be able to make."

It is unclear what such a department would look like, and whether the state legislature would ever agree to such a plan.

Both have also said they are willing to lobby Albany and Washington more than the last administration; Mayor Giuliani often talked proudly of "ending the tin-cup brigade when the city went begging."

And both have said they do not want to raise taxes. Bloomberg announced in his inaugural speech, "We cannot raise taxes. We will find another way." Miller has been less adamant. "Obviously increased taxes are something which nobody in this city wants," he said in response to the question.

But soon, Miller will probably clash with the mayor. He has tried to assure the members of the council that he is up for the occasional battle. "As partners in government and as independent legislature, it is also our duty to challenge him when we differ," Miller said, thumping his fist on the podium. "Let no one mistake our resolve to stand up for our principles."

HOW NEW WILL THE NEW COUNCIL BE?

At the first meeting, several long-time observers of the City Council noted that some things had not changed.

Staff members were at the elbows of the inexperienced Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum and City Clerk Victor Robles making sure that parliamentary procedure was followed. The same old lobbyists and advocates, who have not been term limited, were out in full force. Despite a more open campaign for Speaker, the political party bosses from Queens and the Bronx and union leaders still played a major role in who was elected.

The most significant change that came from the first meeting was a series of amendments to the rules that govern the City Council.

Members hope that the new set of rules will make the council more closely resemble Congress, where members can introduce bills, where there is more debate, and where the individual members and committees are more independent and can set their own agendas.

The new rules will take away some of the Speaker's power. Although he will still be responsible for hiring most of the staff, the committee chairs now have a say in who works for them. And in the past, since the Speaker controlled every bill, there was little open debate, and almost all bills that the Speaker allowed to come to the full council for a vote were passed with absurdly lopsided majorities. Now council members will have more opportunity to publicly oppose their leadership.

But will the new rules mean anything for average New Yorkers? Brooklyn Heights Councilmember David Yassky, who drafted the amendments, says yes.

"These new rules mean that the council member will be more active in policy making and legislating," said Yassky. "That means we won't have a city council that does nothing about education for eight years or does nothing on housing for eight years. Now an individual can get a bill to a vote."

And some council members are wasting no time in pushing their agendas. Just two days after taking office, Queens Councilmember Allan Jennings submitted two new bills to the Speaker: one that would make it easier for small businesses hurt in the September 11 attacks to hold on to their commercial leases, and another that calls for the City Council to have more input in the redevelopment of lower Manhattan. And Jennings said he was already working on nine more bills.

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